Cinema has struggled with a paradoxical nature from its earliest days. Is its primary purpose to instruct, uplift, humanize and liberate? Or is it mostly a form of cheap escapism, a titillating diversion bereft of lasting cultural value, prompting critics to dismiss it as modern-day “bread and circuses,” a major suspect in the dumbing-down of America? Might it also be that the penchant in Hollywood to glorify heroes, from Sam Spade to Black Panther, paved the way for an authoritarian leader by privileging the idea of a savior over more democratic processes — like dialogue, collaboration and community building?
Theodore Adorno, the noted Frankfort School scholar, famously said that every visit to the cinema left him feeling worse off. The Frankfort School, which included famous intellectuals like Erich Fromm and Herbert Marcuse, shed light on the propaganda function of what they called the “culture industry”: how movies shape our civic imaginations, our notions of what is politically possible, for better or worse. Mostly for worse.
Allow me to interject at this point that I don’t consider myself a cinematic snob. In a postmodern democratic society like ours, I’d never attempt to proscribe a cinematic curriculum of only serious, arty, politically weighty films, despite my preference for them. I like variety in my cinematic diet. Occasionally, I take in an old screwball comedy or pre-Code classic at Film Forum in Greenwich Village, or a kitschy 1950s classic like Pillow Talk — in happy, glowing Technicolor — found channel-surfing on TCM.
But given the current set of crises set to befall humanity — global warming, wealth inequality, Trump’s “stable genius” finger on the nuclear button — and given the amazing power of film to inform, inspire, transform consciousness and mobilize populations — I hope Hollywood gets its act together quickly, like it did during World War II with home-front, rallying movies like Yankee Doodle Dandy. We need to unleash a new generation of revolutionary, socially conscious, planet-saving cinema.
Luckily, we have filmic antecedents to draw on, so the wheel need not be reinvented. Think Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Twelve Angry Men (1960), Do the Right Thing (1989), and Bulworth (1998). Not to mention the documentaries of Michael Moore, and the more recent crop of justice-oriented films like The Post and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. For politically edgy work by foreign filmmakers, there’s everything from the Sergei Eisenstein masterpiece Battleship Potemkin (1925) to certain works of Jean-Luc Godard, a radical lefty who took to the streets during France’s revolutionary May of 1968.
The propagandist potential of Hollywood — for good or for bad — was first revealed (for bad) early on by the notorious Birth of a Nation (1915), which normalized racism and promoted the Ku Klux Klan. On the good side of the moral ledger, however, 1912 saw the production of Adolph Zukor’s first feature film, Resurrection (1912), based on a Tolstoy novel that was so provocative and political it is said to have helped foment the Russian Revolution. Tolstoy, let’s not forget, had a deep love for the peasants, and was a pacifist who influenced Gandhi and, later on, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr..
The 1912 film of Resurrection is lost; two later productions were helmed by that most prolific of Native American filmmakers, Edwin Carewe. Each one starred a famous Latina actress: Dolores Del Rio, in 1927, who became the first Latina movie star; and Lupe Vélez, in 1931, called the “Mexican spitfire” or “hot pepper.” Hollywood’s last version was in 1934 as a vehicle for Ukranian beauty Anna Sten — who Sam Goldwyn tried to make the next Greta Garbo — in the retitled We Live Again.
Resurrection is based on an amazing true story Tolstoy heard from a friend and later wrote as a novel. As deep and psychological as most Russian novels, the plot involves a wealthy prince with a liberal heart in love with a prostitute accused of a crime she didn’t commit. The story points a condemning finger at wealth inequality in Czarist Russia, along with its horrendous prison system. How surprisingly topical. It also references the radical American economist Henry George, a hero of the first progressive era. George was the original mobilizer of the 99% with his bestselling book Progress and Poverty; in his barnstorming run for NYC mayor in 1896 he came in third, getting more votes than Teddy Roosevelt.
I am currently on a quest to remind the world of this radical film that played a key role in the origins of Hollywood. I’m trying to resurrect Resurrection, if you will, as a guiding cinematic light from the past to model a more justice-infused movie-making future. Animating my project is a profound sense of personal meaning: the star of Zukor’s Resurrection, Blanche Walsh, arguably the first American movie star, was my grandmother’s dear second mother. In a real-life fairy tale, the childless Walsh rescued by grandmother from a London orphanage in 1909 and brought her to live in NYC, where she looked after her. It’s a magical story I love to tell people, including the audience of my new one-man show, A Real Education, to inspire faith that miracles are still possible in the modern world.
Am I immodest to call myself a scion of early Hollywood royalty? How many degrees of separation does this make me from Kevin Bacon? Sometimes I feel like Laurence Olivier’s stable boy Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights (1939), who discovers, alas, that he’s from noble birth. I love my connection to Hollywood’s ethical, mostly unknown origins. It’s not just a magical story, at least for me. There’s also an educational and civic meaning to it.
Of course, they don’t teach this in university cinema departments. What I hope is to inspire Tinseltown to reclaim the moral authority that marked its inception.